Labor Day celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. But for many American workers, this one symbolic day of tribute doesn’t cut the mustard. Thousands of fast-food restaurant employees across the country staged walkouts last Thursday to demand the right to unionize and to earn a living wage.
Fast-food walk-outs occurred in about 60 cities as part of Thursday’s “Low Pay is Not Okay” campaign– four of which occurred in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, and Durham. The workers called for a $15 hourly wage– almost double the $8.56 per hour average they earn now– which would amount to $31,000 a year for full-time employees. Since 38% of women in NC struggle to make ends meet, doubling the income of one the lowest-paying jobs could mean big strides towards closing the gender gap.
Meanwhile, maintaining full-time status in the food-service industry presents a separate issue. Thirty-nine year old Willieta Dukes of Durham has worked full-time at Burger King for the past year. When the restaurant started to cut back on her hours, Dukes moved in with one of her children to stay afloat. She worries that Burger King will retaliate against strikers, but says “What more do I have to lose? I lost my home. There’s not much more you can take from me.”
Julio Wilson, 34, of Raleigh agrees. He works only 20 to 22 hours a week as an assistant manager at Little Caesars, earns only $9 an hour, walks a mile and a half to work every day, and supports his 5-year-old special-needs daughter.
As Reverend William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said to a crowd of 100 protesters in Raleigh: “It’s a crime that you can work for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but can’t hardly afford the chicken that’s there. Fast-food workers are truly the working poor.”
The higher-ups in the fast-food industry have offered a scattering of excuses. Scott DeFife, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, says that doubling fast-food wages would hurt job creation—especially in the face of the rising costs of ingredients. McDonald’s says that the striking workers’ claims do not accurately depict what it’s like to work at their restaurants. Lynn Minges, CEO of the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association, says that only 5% of US restaurant employees earn minimum wage, and “most of them are teens working part time.” So how do these groups explain Marcel McGirk, a cashier at a Burger King in Raleigh, who still earns minimum wage after nearly 11 years of service?
Willieta Dukes says it best: “I enjoy my work. I enjoy serving people. [Burger King and other fast-food restaurants] tell us we’re good. So why can’t they just pay us what we are worth?”